Archive for the ‘prosody’ Tag

Concerning Cosmopolitan Poetics

The Véhicule Press blog recently highlighted one aspect of Daryl Hines’ poetry picked out for praise by James Pollock, who just edited The Essential Daryl Hines for Porcupine’s Quill here in Canada. Writing of what so impresses him, Pollock remarks that Hines’

knowledge of and engagement with such a wide range of poetic traditions—ancient Greek and Latin, Spanish baroque, Elizabethan, French, American—revealed him as a true cosmopolitan, a perfect antidote to the literary provincialism I’d winced at in so much Canadian poetry.

I share Pollock’s impatient dissatisfaction with artistic and critical parochialism, and Hines’ technique surely evidences a comprehensiveness worthy of respect, but I’d press for a more truly “cosmopolitan” poetics.

Poets have often looked beyond their own borders to refresh and expand their art. Examples are too many:  the importation of forms and themes from Moorish poetry into French and Italian in the Middle Ages, French and Italian forms into England in the Renaissance, etc. However, perhaps it was Goethe who first pronounced and praised that literary production is global, a realization later developed in the context of international trade by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.

Even the limited perspective of the academic history of poetic Modernism tells a story of complementary, temporal extension of poetic tradition and resources. Ezra Pound not only pawed after the ancients of his own Western tradition, but worked to import that of China and Japan. Charles Olson opened the back door of poetry and stepped back to the beginnings of writing and written literature, that of Sumer and the ancient Near East. Gary Snyder went a step further, to include not only the poetry and poetics of Indian, Japan, and China but that of the non-literate peoples of the earth, claiming a poetics that extends to the appearance of homo sapiens. In this project he is joined by among many others Canada’s Robert Bringhurst.

To show and explore concretely that poetry is as universal as language and that it opens itself to include other media, such as dance, painting, and theatre, has been the lifelong task of Jerome Rothenberg. His Technicians of the Sacred, first published in 1968, revised, expanded and reissued in 1984, and due to undergo the same process soon, expands our inherited poetic resources to include in principal all times and places on earth. Rothenberg’s consequent assemblages gather the poetry of the Jewish Diaspora (Big Jewish Book, 1978), American First Nations (Shaking the Pumpkin, 1986 & 2014), poetries of the Americas (America:  A Prophecy, 1975 & 2012), revisionings of modernist, postmodernist, and romantic poetries, and, most recently, outsider poetries.

Weltpoesie on this scale radically decentres and contextualizes literate, Eurocentric poetics. Disputes over “meter” are revealed to be only one small conversation within a wildly-diverse, species-wide symposium concerned with poetic technique. Questions about subject matter become laughable in view of everything that has inspired humankind to artfully shape language. Within such a Symposium of the Whole provincialisms that cause some to wince inspire little more than a bemused chuckle, a shake of the head, and a return to the real work.

The Dance of the Syllables: some remarks on prosody

musesRecently, a friend shared a link to an interview with Australian poet Robert Adamson citing this remark on craft as a teaser:  “Poetry is song, every word in every line must work, each word transcribed like a note, each line connected to a breath.”

Whatever the merits of Adamson’s poetry, this observation on the art of poetry is just plain hokey. The identification of poetry with song is threadbare and, in a sense, disingenuous, unless he really is setting words to music. Likewise, that “every word in every line must work” (though clearly intended prescriptively) states little more than the principle of parsimony, an element of literary competence, the assumption that no element of a work of art is nonfunctional. When he goes on to equate words with notes in a song, he departs from the identification or metaphor he starts with (or, more charitably, develops it along his own lines for his own purposes) as songs notate, more or less, the syllables of their words. And to “connect” each line to a breath is belated at best, questionably phonocentric at worst. Sadly, such homespun poetics appear more the rule than the exception.

Instead of equating poetry with song one could as easily characterize the recitation of a poem as a dance, not of the whole laverbody but, at a minimum, the vocal apparatus. After all, reciting a poem demands the articulation of the phonemes that constitute its utterance by means of the complex but no less describable movement of the vocal organs and their parts. The written text of a poem imagined this way is not a musical score but a choreography. Of course, reciting a poem demands more than just speaking its words: posture (standing or sitting, for example), facial expression, and gesture, all bodily movements, are included, all aspects of the poem’s performance here conceived as dance.

The connection between poetry and dance is at least as time-honoured as that of poetry with song. The traditional manner of describing a poem’s prosody is scansion, the analysis of the line into its constituent feet and their stresses. The study of scansion is inherited from the days when education included the parsing of Greek and Latin verses both in terms of their grammar and their meter. The study of poetry in school finds an important precursor in the memorization of the Homeric epics in antique Athens, where schoolboys would learn the poems through a combination of stamping their feet and gesturing. This seated dance mimicked the more recognizable one of the tragic chorus whose dance steps were timed to its chanted lines, a performance descended from the ritualistic origins of classical drama. Those imitators of Greek culture, the Romans, not only adopted the pedagogical practices of their models, but also integrated it into their military training, wherein the legionnaires, wielding weapons and wearing armour twice the weight of the usual, drilled chanting and stepping in time, a performance in line with the diction of The Iliad that describes the fighting of its heroes as a war dance. This relation of scansion to archaic rite doubtless prompted Ezra Pound’s observation that “Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”

However illuminating these reflections on the poetic foot may be, that scansion past and present pupils sweated through and rolled their eyes over was already outmoded in the 1920s when the Russian Formalists began to apply the powerfully precise methods of modern linguistic analysis to the meter and rhythm of poetry, rising to the challenges of establishing a “science” of literary study and of finding a way to appreciate and meaningfully discuss the radically novel Zaum poetry their friends the Futurist poets had just started composing. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with an introductory linguistics textbook or the application of linguistic methodology to the acoustics of poetry will likely wince at well-meaning but ponderously quaint pronouncements on the poetic art, such as that by Adamson.

But even “scientifically” precise descriptions of a poem’s sound can never escape the abstractness that lends them their power of articulation. What opened my ears to poetic meter was hearing Yeats recite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Regardless of the merits of Yeats’ performance, one can’t help but discern the “tune” (as Yeats called it) that orchestrates his recitation. Metrical systems are only the faintly waling ghosts of the melody a poem is sung to. When one combines this understanding with Carlyle’s observation that “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it: not a parish in the world but has its parish-accent;—the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say” then by a constant, arduous practice of “close listening” the music of poetry and even everyday speech fills the ear and refines and quickens the appreciation of poetry. As Pound admonishes in his Treatise on Metre:  “LISTEN to the sound it makes.”

(An application of the notions sketched here can be read in my appreciation of the sound of a short poem by Elaine Equi.)

Elaine Equi’s Sound “Prescription”

(A blog, I guess, is a good spot to place homeless texts:  and what follows certainly qualifies. I queried Arc about submitting it there, but the editors never responded, twice; then I submitted it to rob mclennan’s Seventeen Seconds, which apparently rejected it by (silently) not including it in the latest on-line issue. The piece, a study of the sounds in a six-line poem by Elaine Equi, is perverse, very seriously so, which goes to explain, I guess, its reception…)

In a recent review of James Langer’s Gun Dogs (Globe and Mail, Thursday 18 June 2009) Carmine Starnino lauds Langer’s work for being “musically alert, with marvellous rhythmic and tonal variety” and the poet himself for his “knack for finding words that, placed together, crackle and pop.” Starnino goes on to lament where Langer overdoes it, citing Langer as an example of “what Newfoundland poet Patrick Warner calls ‘the School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants'”. That poets are paying attention to their vowels and consonants, and other matters of what Starnino refers to in the same review as “poetic form”, he credits to “a group of tyros who have made it impossible to talk about anything else”. Starnino’s somewhat self-congratulatory tone concerning how “poetic form has become a hot button issue” thanks to that “group of tyros” to which he himself no doubt belongs is what prompts me to join in that talk. To be fair, let me say at the outset that I am very consciously using Starnino’s and Warner’s remarks here as stalking horses (not, hopefully, as straw men) for my argument with a critical tendency that strikes me as being as narrow as it is vocal.

Patrick Warner introduces his School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants in a review of Steven Price’s Anatomy of Keys (Books in Canada, December 2006), wherein he identifies Ken Babstock, Carmine Starnino, Joe Denham, and Zach Wells as members, a class-list to which I would add Tim Bowling, among others. Warner writes that “[a]ll of these writers, at various times and to varying degrees, can be said to have fallen under the spell of Seamus Heaney”; equally all might be said to write in what August Kleinzahler has dubbed “Nobel-ese”, the mannerisms of, precisely, Heaney and, for example, Derek Walcott. Among various features that mark this kind of poetry—the feature I want to focus on here—is how it sounds. Starnino cites Langer’s “sandstone grit that girders the barrens” as an example of “sense-heightening description”, a phrase that exemplifies how Nobelese sounds, as well, with its near-Anglo-Saxon alliteration of s’s and g’s, and the n’s, t’s, and r’s that, as it were, girder the phrase’s music. In his review, Starnino praises such “formal sophistication.”

What would the like-minded make of Elaine Equi’s poem “Prescription” published in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology?

Take Herrick

for melancholy



for clarity



for nerve

Here is a poem remarkably lacking in kennings, “sense-heightening descriptions”, overt metaphor, indeed, every mannerism of Nobelese. It is understated and wry, evoking the everyday context and instrumental language of the consulting room. Nor does it possess any of that sonority characteristic of the Englishes of a Heaney or Walcott. For all that, Equi’s poem is remarkably prosodically accomplished, all the more so for its limited means, a mere eight words. A reading of what and how the poem might mean, that would identify and develop the conceit that structures it, falls outside my concern here, which is merely the poem’s prosody, the discernible and demonstrable patterns of syllabic and phonemic elements, what is traditionally called schemes (figures of arrangement) as distinct from tropes (figures of replacement).

By prosody I mean “the articulation of the total sound of the poem” (Pound 421), a description, first, of the patterns of rhythm and rhyme, patterns of repetition at the level of the phoneme, the syllable, or even the word, line, or stanza, as these patterns occur throughout and structure and develop the poem. To facilitate my description, I have appended a transcription of the poem in the International Phonetic Alphabet. I have transcribed the poem as I hear it, following the conventions of pronunciation of Standard Canadian English. Other actualizations of the poem’s music are possible, including that of the poet herself, who resides in New York.

Equi’s poem exhibits a deft structure even before we attend to its sound. Lexically, of the eight words in the poem, only one is a finite verb, the imperative ‘take’, with six substantives (three proper and three common nouns), and the preposition ‘for’. The grammatical parallelism of the poem’s three prescriptive statements is reinforced by the poem’s versification: each statement is a couplet, each line of each couplet possessing a substantive according to a regular pattern, where the proper noun precedes the common, each on its own line. The parallelism is further reinforced by each second line’s beginning “for”. Nor should the function of the number three—three statements, three couplets, three proper and three common nouns, three instances of ‘for’—be overlooked as evidence of the poem’s rigorous if underplayed artifice.

Turning to the poem’s rhythm or metre, we note that the first line of each couplet is three (!) syllables and the second line of each decreases from five to four to two syllables. If we agree that the first lines of the first and last couplet are amphibrachic, i.e., of three syllables with the primary stress on the middle syllable, then one is tempted to hear in the relative weights of the syllables in ‘Niedecker’ a cretic rather than a dactyl, i.e., the middle of the name’s three syllables being unstressed balanced by two relatively stressed syllables, lending these three lines a metrical symmetry, i.e., a cretic bound by two amphibrachs. However debatable the rhythm of the couplets’ first lines (one might hear, for example, a dactyl framed by two palimbacchii), it seems more certain that each couplet’s second line invariably contains two stresses. The poem as whole, then, is rhythmically regular with stressed and unstressed syllables alternating on each line until the final spondee. From beginning to end, the metre becomes increasingly emphatic, with the ratio of stressed to unstressed syllables in the couplets’ second lines being two: three, two: two, and two: zero, respectively.

For such a short poem, “Prescription” is remarkably rich in syllables sharing (i.e., “rhyming”) one or more identical or similar phonemes. The second and fourth lines rhyme ‘melancholy’ and ‘clarity’, two words that share three phonemes over and above the end rhyme /li/ and /ti/, namely /ɛ/, /l/, and /k/ (melancholy, clarity), phonemes whose order is, moreover, reversed in each word. There are several internal rhymes, as well. ‘Herrick’, ‘clarity’, and ‘O’Hara’ all share the phonic cluster /ɛr/, with ‘Herrick’ and ‘O’Hara’ framing ‘clarity’, highlighted by the /h/ in each. The shared cluster /ɛr/ in these three words is echoed by the /ər/, an off-rhyme between ‘Niedecker‘ and ‘nerve’, which, in turn, share the initial phoneme /n/. Of the poem’s ten individual words, only one does not obviously rhyme with at least one other, ‘Take’, a word that, nevertheless, shares two of its three phonemes with at least one other word (/t/ with clarity and /k/ with Herrick, melancholy, Neidecker, and clarity) and whose vowel arguably off-rhymes with /ɛr/ in Herrick, clarity, and O’Hara, a trio linked also, with the pair ‘Niedecker’ and ‘nerve’, to the three instances of ‘for’ via the cluster /ɔr/, an off-rhyme with /ɛr/ and /әr/. In the progression from ‘take’ to ‘Herrick’, through ‘for’, ‘Niedecker’, ‘for’, ‘clarity’, ‘O’Hara’, ‘for’, and ‘nerve’ we might detect an instance of what Pound called “the tone leading of the vowels.” Such tonal virtuosity is underwritten by the poem’s phonic economy. Of twenty syllables, only one (/ow/ in ‘O‘Hara’) does not rhyme with at least one other phoneme in at least one other syllable; and of the remaining syllables, only one shares only one phoneme with only one other syllable, /dә/ in Niedecker, whose /ә/ rhymes with that in melancholy. All the remaining syllables share at least two phonemes with at least two other syllables.

The phonemes /f/, /n/, /r/, /ɛ/, and /ɔ/ are found in every couplet. The first two couplets share, in addition, the consonants /k/, /l/, /t/ and the vowels /i/, /ɪ/, and /ə/, i.e., in these first four lines, eleven of eighteen different phonemes  are repeated (or “rhyme”) at least once.  Strictly, of the whole poem’s total of nineteen different phonemes, seven are not repeated, /ei/ in ‘take’ (no orphan, either, as shown above), /m/ and /ɑ/ in ‘melancholy’, /d/ in ‘Niedecker’, /ow/ and /a/ in ‘O’Hara’, and /v/ in ‘nerve’ (arguably, however, a near-rhyme with its unvoiced labiodental other, /f/, in ‘for’). That is to say that the phonemes compose a densely complex pattern that at the same time constitutes a nearly subliminal euphony. One could trace the way these rhymes structure and develop the poem, relating its words, lines, and stanzas. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that the remarkable phonic parsimony discernible at the level of the syllables extends to the phonemes, too, though I would wager that connoisseurs of the prosody of Nobelese would be unlikely to bother attending to music as self-effacing as that of “Prescription”.

Equi’s formal sophistication continues the efforts of English-language Modernist poets to clarify poetic discourse by eschewing precisely that Victorian sonority that persists in the accents of Nobelese. This effort is at its best underwritten by what Louis Zukofsky called the test for poetry, namely, the quality discernible in a poem’s sound, sense, and intellection (vii). In the addendum to canto C in Pound’s Cantos, an unidentified voice says “A pity that poets have used symbol and metaphor / and no man learned anything from them / for their speaking in figures” (ll. 34-36). One hears a not unrelated sentiment in William Carlos Williams’ call for “No ideas but in things!” (55) or the epigraph to Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980 “Things are symbols of themselves!” This shift from the metaphorical to the metonymic at the level of the trope goes hand in hand with equal respect for the spontaneous genius of “the language really spoken,” its diction and its movement, a respect, ironically, with roots deep in nineteenth century philology and Romanticism, as anyone who recognizes the truncated quotation from Wordsworth will know (736). The notion is perhaps best expressed by Carlyle who exclaims “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it:  not a parish in the world but has its parish accent; —the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say!” (10). The primacy of music to language is attested by disciplines from developmental and evolutionary linguistics to philosophy. Whatever difference there is between discerning (and exploiting) the music in everyday speech and appreciating or composing the more artificial prosody of a poem, an ear for the former is more sensitive to finesses in the latter. Equi’s poem does not “crackle and pop”, sung, as it is, to a melody at once more cultured and subtle, rising, as if spontaneously, from the language as it is really spoken. An old handbook of poetics puts it best:  “Here lies the skill, the genius of the poet; and no rules can take the place of a poetic ear” (163).

Prescription”: transcription

teik   hɛrɪk       

fɔr mɛlənkɑli



fɔr klɛrɪti



fɔr nərv


Carlyle, Thomas. Of Great Men. New York:  Penguin, 1995.

Equi, Elaine, “Prescription” in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology, ed. Michael Redhill. Toronto:  Anansi, 2008.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980. New York:  Harper and Row, 1984.

Gummere, Francis. Handbook of Poetics. New York:  Ginn and Company, 1895.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot. New York:  New Directions, 1968.

The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York:  New Directions, 1970.

Starnino, Carmine. “A Spectacular Mouthful.” The Globe and Mail Daily Review, 18 June 2009.

Warner, Patrick. “Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants.” Books in Canada, December 2006.

Williams, Williams Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II. New York:  New Directions, 1991.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. London:  Oxford University Press, 1951.

Zukofsky, Louis. A Test of Poetry. New York:  Jargon, 1964.